Sure, I tend to dwell on guitars and synths within the pages of Yellow Green Red, but there’s room for all instrumentation in my life, even that of the majestic harp. It’s Mary Lattimore’s muse, and you’ve probably experienced her music without even knowing it, as she has backed up indie luminaries such as Thurston Moore and Kurt Vile throughout the years. Of course, it’s on her own where she truly captivates, working live effects and looping into her glistening tapestry of sound, either paired with other like-minded player or on her own. I am also lucky enough to consider her a friend (just have to put that out there), and was delighted that she was willing to share some detailed insight into her work and style.

I feel like it’s usually the case that people tend to put specific instruments into specific scenes or genres of music – electric guitars are rock, 303s are techno, harps are classical. Did you always see the harp as a vehicle for whatever you wanted to be, or did you initially share that form of thinking, and if so, what happened to break you out of that?
As a kid, I was around a lot of harps and a lot of harpists. My mom is a classical harpist and has played with the Asheville Symphony for thirty-plus years. She has directed a harp ensemble, has taught a lot of lessons, and played a lot of gigs, traveled all the time around North and South Carolina, always practiced a lot at our house. I heard how she was able to play not only classical music, but jazz standards, Celtic music, and instrumental versions of pop hits, so I knew that it was a versatile instrument, in a way. (I didn’t know about harpists like Zeena Parkins or Alice Coltrane or Georgia Kelley until I was a lot older.)
But I think that the freedom, limitlessness, and empty unwritten page of part-writing and improvisation was daunting for a long time and finding a personal style took a little while to cultivate, as maybe is common with conservatory-trained musicians. I have always been into absorbing tons of music for fun and slowly realized that my instrument could play the same notes as those guitars. I listened for those beautiful Nicky Hopkins piano parts. It took awhile to stop being so envious of and mystified by instruments I couldn’t play and to start speaking with my own giant, weird thing and take it to a place that I picked out for it. Part of that revelation came from working with the Valerie Project, writing parts for a re-imagined score for Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and being a part of that mini-orchestra, being given the trust and sonic space to do whatever I wanted within a lush mishmash of cello, guitar, drums, synth, electronics. Part of it came from playing with Kurt Vile and getting psyched on sounds with him. If I only listened to classical music by myself and with my friends, I think I would probably only play those lovely, tricky, legendary pieces, but this is what happened. Haha.

For those of us who know nothing about the harp, can you give us a little background on it, from your perspective? Is it easy to play? Is it a versatile instrument? Do you need a dolly to move it? I noticed you tend to use your left hand for the strings further from your body and your right hand closer, am I correct in picking that up or was it just how you were feeling like playing when I saw you perform?
Yes, you’re right! That’s just the standard, classic way of playing a harp, left hand down on the lower strings, right hand plays middle to high. My harp is the big one, the Concert Grand, and it was made in Chicago. It’s organized by octaves and color-coded, so all of the C strings are red, all of the F strings are blueish black, and you can figure out the ones in the middle based on those colors. There are 7 pedals, one for each tone of the scale (C pedal, D pedal, E pedal, etc). Each pedal has three notches you can slip it into. If the C pedal is in the top notch, it’s a C flat, middle notch is C natural, all the way pressed down in the lowest notch is C sharp, so the string is essentially being tightened with each level you’re pressing it into. It’s very fun to play, and kinda hard, but it’s like driving a car, where you’re watching the signs, you’re using your feet, you’re using your hands to steer, you’re listening to the radio, and you’re drinking coffee. You get used to doing a bunch of things all at once and it feels normal eventually.
I have a dolly for it and sound like a creep when I’m looking for it at some kind of event: “Have you seen my dolly?”. Haha. It has a giant cover, it’s a giant thing but it only weighs 85 pounds because it’s hollow. It’s a really old instrument – there are harps painted on the walls of Egyptian tombs. It’s been through a lot of changes in design. Mine right now has a really good pickup which has 4 contact mics all connected and it’s glued in for life.

For anyone considering playing a harp, are there any particular things you DON’T recommend they do or try?
Don’t play with your pinkies – they’re thin like twigs and will snap off. Don’t leave your harp in the car in extreme weather, even if you’re lazy and really sleepy. Don’t leave it without a hand on it, even for just a second, on a windy day. (Dad did that and Dad cried as the wind picked it up and hurled it onto the ground.) Give yourself a lot of breaks if you’re practicing something tricky. You don’t want all of that stress and tension in your hands for so long. Give yourself a break, get up, take a walk, and come back to it. That’s all I can think of. Other than that, no rules, try anything you want.

Are you more comfortable performing with another person, or by yourself? Is it the same for in the studio?
Oh, either way. I like playing with other people, solo, with my great bandmate Jeff Zeigler on synth, with other unusual instruments (I have a harp and koto record coming out in October with this guy Maxwell, who plays koto through effects), improvising, playing parts that have been written out by me or someone else, all of it. It’s all pretty fun!

Would you ever consider starting on a new instrument and giving it the same thought and practice you’ve given the harp? Like, what are the odds that one day you’ll decide you want to move on to saxophone or guitar?
Sure! I’m trying to teach myself a little guitar. I’d like to learn the cello and our friend Jesse Trbovich just sold me this beautiful synth. As far as being a student and practicing intensely like I did when I was learning the basics of the harp, I hope so – focus comes in such waves. Going into a practice space, really digging in and being strict with yourself is cool and kind of a luxury when you’re older with a lot more mental chatter. Right now, I feel the pull of the screens and the social stuff and of work and playing live, etc, but know that, ultimately, there will be some space carved out for getting better at another instrument to some degree. It’s so satisfying to get better at something. It’s addictive to get better.

Your solo album is on Ghostly, a label that I think is great, but also an interesting choice. They aren’t exactly known for their carefully considered semi-improvised harp music. How did that come about? Is it a one-off, or do you feel like you are a part of their roster?
Haha, true. They just asked me to do a second record, so I guess I am part of their roster? Sam, the owner of the label, has been in touch since the first solo record, The Withdrawing Room, came out. It was released by a smaller label called Desire Path. Someone at his office was playing it and Sam was into it, so wrote me to say so. We’ve stayed in touch. Honestly, At The Dam wasn’t supposed to be the Ghostly record, in my mind, because I recorded it myself just using Garage Band and my laptop. I thought it’d come out on some smaller label and be very limited, more like a souvenir of a trip across the country. But Sam liked the songs and understood the thought behind the record, collecting vibes from different remote places, and wanted to put it out, so I’m happy about it! Ghostly has been so great to work with. Hopefully they’re happy with me, too, and it’s cool that they’re open to exploring new territory with the sounds they represent.

I bet you’ve got a bucket list, but is there anyone in particular you hope to perform with someday that you haven’t already? Anyone that particularly stands out?
A bucket list, always! I was just in Marfa playing the Marfa Myths festival and got to hear some heroes play and would love to see what we’d come up with. William Basinski played a gorgeous set that everyone swam around in. He performed in this huge former equestrian arena with the wind shaking the windows and his measured loops collaborating with the sunshine and the wind-sound. I’d love to do something with him and I think he’s a great person, too. I went to his house one time and he picked me some oranges from a tree with a special orange-picking instrument. He lives in the part of Los Angeles where the Munchkins, while filming the the Wizard of Oz, all lived in a hotel. Billy is the real wizard, has some magic powers.
Another of my favorite sets was the Raum set with Paul Clipson doing live projections. So artful, so thoughtful and quiet with tons of negative space. Raum is Liz Harris and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and they had a mini-residency, worked on this set and presented it on the last day of the festival. I loved it so much I wanted to cry and just live there in that spot, blubbering, for a long time. Haha. So, to collaborate with Liz and Jefre or each separately would also be a dream.
I just jammed with the elegant Julianna Barwick a few times and that was really fun, we’re gonna make a record.
Michael Rother in Forst. Also, MGMT in a kaleidoscopic glittery warped young bright world of hooks and total fun.